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Now they have a second chance to overcome those obstacles and build a life together - a life which includes the discipline each of them has finally acknowledged must be a part of their relationship.
But will the tingle of that special chemistry they have discovered be as strong in a world where it seems like there are no longer any mysteries, and everything can be plainly seen? Or is it possible that Andee and Nick are only just beginning to unravel strands from the past that are colored with emotion and life-changing truths? As each of them comes face-to-face with their own deep insecurities, fears from the past and hopes for the future, will their passion and commitment to a disciplined lifestyle be enough to see them through? Or is it too late?
And who knows what will happen when Andee's father reveals the truth about her past; when Nick refuses to be seduced; or when the bride desperately needs an attitude adjustment?
This is the sequel to Reading Her Heart, Lessons From Nick's Firm Hand: Book One, and was previously published under the title 'The View Over His Lap'.
She reached for another heavy volume from the book cart and carefully slid it into the open space on the library shelf. It was one of Andee Carlisle's last duties of the day as an employee of the university's library.
In an age of instant information flashed on a computer screen, there were still students who preferred leafing through hands-on materials whose pages had whispered past thousands of fingers for decades. Then, too, the system's effort to convert all books to digital format was far from complete where older volumes were concerned. So each evening, before she left to focus on her own studies in her small apartment near the campus, the petite twenty-six-year-old brunette returned the day's supply of borrowed print to its rightful place.
It was always a quiet and solitary time. By ten o'clock, the only students left in the building were serious researchers or frantic underclassmen, desperate to complete an assignment and not much given to conversation with either friends or attractive strangers. Monday night was always the slowest time of the week for late-nighters, anyway. So evenings like this one always found her alone in the old east wing of the third floor where the library's collection of European literature and history was housed.
Carlotta always covered the first floor returns. She said the upper levels were too quiet and made her nervous late at night. Andee, amused by the sophomore's fear that someone was hiding out in the stacks and waiting to commit an atrocity, was entirely amenable to the division of labor. She had a newfound fascination with the section allotted to stories that had stood the test of time, as well as the carefully compiled volumes, housed on the opposite side of the room, that filled in the literal background for those fiction-focused books that were meant to entertain.
The silence never bothered her. It left her free of distractions so she could slip into her memories and try to meld them with her hopes for the future.
Absorbed both by the task claiming her physical energy and by the building of dreams as fragile as shimmering soap bubbles, she was startled to hear footsteps on the century-old polished wooden floor. Neither the squeak of athletic rubber soles nor the distinctive slap of thonged footwear, these were heavy, measured treads of serious shoes. A grown man's shoes.
Just before the end of spring semester, Andee had spent two weeks in total darkness as the result of a sight-threatening eye infection. Her other senses had been finely honed by the experience, and now her hearing put her defenses on high alert. She had secretly scorned Carlotta's fears as entirely imaginary, and yet suddenly she found her own heart signaling some primitive fight or flight instinct.
There were no men among the library's nighttime staff, save Zondervan, of course. But he went barefoot as often as he could escape Mrs. Jameson's notice, and tended to scuff along in ratty moccasins when she forced him to comply with the staff's unwritten dress code. Instructors never frequented the library so late at night, and in the three months she had been employed there, she had yet to encounter a student on the third floor after the checkout desk closed at nine.
Yet someone was clearly in the long, narrow room with her now; someone coming slowly down the broad center aisle, just on the other side of the shelves where she was working. Easing a couple of slender hardbacks out, she peered through, looking across outsized volumes displayed horizontally on the adjoining shelves that bordered the main passage through the area. And there he was, passing so close she could have reached through and brushed the arm of his denim shirt. Then he was gone from her range of vision.
She debated simply walking in the opposite direction and making for the first floor. Whoever he was, he would have to leave the library through the front door, and once she saw the blue shirt go past the main desk, she would calmly return to her duties.
Andee quietly pushed the books she had shifted back into position and realized with a sudden jolt that the intruder had rounded the corner and was coming toward her, his footsteps whisper soft now that he walked on the thin strip of aisle carpet she had been counting on to muffle her own exit toward where he had entered.
She ducked her head and turned back to the rolling rack holding the books she had not yet shelved. Now that he could see her, pride kept her from scurrying down the aisle like a timid mouse, yet every lesson campus security had drilled into co-eds throughout her years at the university urged her to leave the area immediately.
He was nearby. She could hear him exhale and she realized he was no longer moving, but had come to a stop so close behind he could probably touch her. He might touch her. He might grab her, cover her mouth to stifle a cry, drag her away into one of the small study carrels and slam the door. He might�oh, God, he might�
Andee shook her head and stiffened her spine, gathering her wits and steeling herself to confront the stranger head-on so she would at least be able to identify him. She sucked in a fortifying breath, squaring her shoulders.
And she knew. In one heart-stopping moment, as his fingers brushed her shoulder, her senses synched, her blood pounded through the fist-sized organ in her chest with such intensity it seemed to take her breath away, and her mind confirmed the truth of it all.
She smelled the rain.
Her eyes flooded with tears.
She turned to face him and whispered the name linked to that scent that had haunted her every waking moment for months.
"Mr. Benjamin," she said with wonder as she looked into his dark eyes for the first time in her life.
She was so small in his arms, so perfectly little and soft and meltingly, achingly dear as she burrowed close and wept into his shirt. Nick Benjamin pressed kisses into the riot of her dark curls that were tickling his chin, longing to taste her lips instead, and swayed gently with her, rubbing her back in gentle circles with one hand and anchoring her against his body with the other.
Wonderful Andee. Bewitching woman of his dreams. Sweetest little girl in the world. The one who held his heart in her tender hands...
"Where the hell have you been?" she demanded, breaking his hold by stomping, not at all tenderly, on his polished loafer and pulling out of his embrace to stare up into his face, outrage stamped on her features.
He hid the laughter that bubbled in his chest behind a carefully cocked eyebrow and narrowed lids as he swiftly circled her waist from the back. With a practiced arm, he pulled her against his hip and delivered two attention-focusing smacks that flattened the very interesting rear aspect of her navy linen slacks. The noise echoed like dual pistol shots through the length of the room and spilled out into the hall. Her surprised yelps chased the sound along.
"You know better than to use such language around me, young lady," he said in his gruffest voice. Then he held her at arm's length, hands on her shoulders.
"I'll say it again," she hissed. "I'll say much worse. And I'll keep on saying it, no matter how many times you do-do that thing you do to me�until you kiss me," she said, drinking in the face she had longed to see since the first time she heard his voice.
"That threat is going to cost you, you know," he said, and she grimaced and moved both hands back to protect her slightly tender backside. "Only one kiss for you, missy, right here in the middle of the library, instead of the two dozen I was planning."
There was nothing tender about his lips. Nothing remotely like the dreams she had nurtured for months. They were firm and hungry and demanding, and they matched her own fierce needs perfectly. Not satisfied with pressing into her soft, moist flesh, he tasted her skin as though starved for sustenance and when she parted her lips, he invaded the moist heat of her mouth with his tongue, retreating momentarily to press soft little kisses against her cheeks and eyelids and nose before returning to claim her mouth again. It had been years since he had kissed a woman with such passion.
She was wise enough, later, not to point out that he had made a complete mockery of his own threat by the time he let her go. But she smiled to herself in delight as she thought of it. And she prayed it was simply a hint of things to come.
"Why did you leave me?" she asked, her green eyes swimming with tears when she finally sat in his lap in the familiarity of her own little apartment and leaned away just enough to bring his face into focus.
It was the face of a mature man, one old enough to be her father. His rich brown hair had, she imagined, receded a little and was edged with grey at the temples. His mouth was generous, outlined by a lower lip a little fuller than the upper. She loved the way it settled into a smile she thought must be the sweetest any man had ever worn, and she was captivated by the occasional smirk that lifted the left corner. His eyes seemed to have depths she could drown in. There were crinkles at the outer corners, above cheekbones that hinted at some Native American ancestry, and a few lines across his broad forehead.
She traced one absently with her finger, waiting for his answer.
The dark eyes closed briefly as the memory of the last time he had seen her washed over him.
"There are at least two new ones there," he said finally, "two of those lines you're staring at. They're your fault, you naughty girl, you."
Andee felt that unexpected wash of liquid warmth, beginning just at waist level and lapping down, that she had hardly begun to fully appreciate before Nick Benjamin made his mysterious exit from her life.
He saw the blush rise on her cheeks and knew precisely what had put it there. It was one of the cords that bound them�the need that made them the perfect complement to each other. He considered expounding on the cause, simply for the joy of witnessing the effect that he was confident would include a most satisfying wriggling motion of her saucy little bottom across an exceptionally sensitive portion of his anatomy.
A few rapid blinks drove the tears from her eyes and the blush receded before he found the words to answer her.
"This is not easy, Andee, in fact, it's�well, it's pretty awkward and embarrassing and painful."
"I guess if it was easy, you would have told me at the time. Or sometime between then and now. I imagined all kinds of things, starting with a hit and run that put you in the hospital in a coma or in a morgue downtown, when you didn't call or come by that night after my doctor's appointment. I knew something terrible had happened. We had so much to celebrate. I passed my final exam and I came through that horrible eye infection with my eyes okay. I couldn't wait to tell you what Dr. Haynesworth said about my test on Hamlet. But most of all, I couldn't wait to see you. For the first time. The very first time. Do you know how much I needed that?" The tears were back, this time overflowing and making slow tracks down her face.
She reached up to wipe them away, feeling like a disgruntled child playing at being a grown up and foiled in the attempt by emotions too big to control.
Nick caught her fingers in his warm hands, the hands that smelled, still, like spring rain and were the most sensuous impression she had had of him when they had met months before, just outside the door of the apartment where they were cuddled now. He kissed the tears away instead, the way he had longed to do since the first time she had wept in his presence.
"If your need was anything like mine, it was pretty overwhelming. I was so proud of you when you finished the test that day. You had worked hard under such terrible circumstances�things that would have made other people give up. I wanted to cheer for you every time you answered a question into that recorder. You should have seen Haynesworth's face. At first he kept trying to figure out how I could be coaching you. I think he was determined to find a way you might be cheating. He finally had to admit to himself, I think, that there were just the three of us in that little room at the library and he could hear every word I said, see everything I did. There was no way I could have been helping you with the answers. And he had to know you didn't have some kind of cheat sheet. The only place you could have put one would have been on the inside of those patches on your eyes; not exactly somewhere you could have been reading tiny print. Plus, the questions were all new ones he put together just for your exam. When all that dawned on him, he just sat there and looked at you in awe."
She smiled wanly. "Yeah. He asked me, after you left for your meeting, why I'd been hiding my light under a bushel in his class all those weeks before I got blind. I told him not being able to see made it easier for me to concentrate. I didn't think it would help my grade a lot if I pointed out to him I finally got a decent teacher, someone who made me want to learn."
The side of his mouth pulled down in a self-deprecating little grimace. "I doubt he would have approved my methods, in any case." He remembered, and he knew she did, the times he had centered her interest in learning with grim determination and had enforced some much-needed discipline, when she was ready to give up, with attention-focusing smacks on her bare bottom. Precious few professors would have resorted to such study aids; precious few students would have submitted to it. It had worked for the two of them, however.
He was, he realized, still not entirely certain of her commitment to him, in spite of the declaration she had made in the daring, romantic email she had used to track him down and encourage him to return to her, or her welcome at the library, or even her loving embrace here in the small apartment she called home, where they had forged so many bonds.
The things he had witnessed as he sat in his car just outside the door to that apartment only a few months before�the things that had caused him to abandon his life in the California coastal college town and retire to the anonymity of a cabin in the mountains of East Tennessee with a battered heart�still had the power to torment.
Admitting that to Andee was not going to be easy, however. He was a man committed to guarding his heart from a recurrence of the pain he had experienced at the hands of an unfaithful wife years before. Yet, he had allowed himself to become vulnerable to the young woman who was his client at Buckley Resources, the company that provided readers for those needing assistance with printed material. So the comments he had overheard between the girl he had come to love so deeply and her best friend had been like arrows striking a target enlarged by his own concerns about his age and its attendant changes in his life. Like heart-seeking verbal missiles, the mean-spirited comments had zeroed in on his areas of vulnerability while he sat in his car just a few feet from the young women entering the apartment that afternoon. Once the initial shock faded to a point where he could react, he had dealt with the devastation by washing his hands of the life he had known and fleeing.
It was a self-defeating act he would have refused to allow Andee to commit in her own life, but it had seemed the only way to manage his shattered dreams at the time.
Now he was back, because for reasons he still could not understand, Andee had refused to give up on him and had offered him bait he found, after agonizing days of weighing the odds, he could not refuse.
"Your methods seem to be what I needed," she whispered shyly. "But I need something else even more. I need to know why we've been apart all this time. What happened? Do you know how I felt when I went to your office and they told me you had taken some kind of crazy leave of absence? That's all they would say. I had no idea where you lived or even how to phone or email you. They said it was against company policy to reveal any personal information about an employee and that's what you still were, technically. I begged them to get in touch with you and pass on a message, but I didn't really think they would. They just wrote me off as a crazy, I think. I guess that's how I was behaving, but I couldn't believe you would just leave me like that. I thought I could depend on you. I thought-I thought you lo�" Her voice caught on a sob and she scrambled out of his lap and ran for the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
He stared after her, trying to make sense of her confession and the seemingly contradictory things he had overheard that day. Finally, with the sound of her hiccupping whimpers in his ears, he stood up and walked the few feet across her tiny apartment to the bathroom door.
"I hope you haven't locked it," he said calmly, far more calmly than he felt. "I would hate to have to break it down, but I'll do just that if you're not in my arms in about half a minute. I didn't come all the way across the country to lose you again behind some stupid piece of cheap plastic."
He heard her sniff noisily and stamp her small foot before she shoved the door open, almost hitting him in the face. "You make me crazy. You know that?" she demanded as she hurled herself into his arms for the second time that night.
"Then we make a good pair, because you have a very similar effect on me, little girl."
He steered her back to the roomy padded chair that was the only place to sit, save her neatly made futon, in the combination living room/bed room of her home. That chair had witnessed a lot of their interaction, he thought with a smile as they settled into it again.
He had bent her over its padded back for a serious encounter with his belt when she had sunk to the level of a tantrum-centered six-year-old. And he had sat in it and watched her struggle with the humiliation of time spent in the corner with a bar of soap in her mouth after she gave in to the temptation to use gutter language in his presence. She had emerged from both experiences a little further along the path to overcoming the wounds from her past and to facing the world as a productive and emotionally healthy adult. It was not a course of treatment society would have approved; it was a method that had appeared to work wonders for Andee, however, and he had been far less resistant to using it once he accidentally discovered her hidden books that were proof of her fascination with such discipline.
They had never talked about those books. They had never really talked about her response to his strict reactions where her behavior was concerned. That would have to come, he knew, but first they needed to deal with some deep hurts.
It amazed him to know she was the one who felt she had been wronged. How could she have mourned his absence that day of his abrupt departure when she had spoken about him with such contempt just a few hours before, he wondered. And how did he explain the depth of pain her comments had produced without bringing that bogeyman�his age�out of the shadows and into the room with them?
It was not a conversation he was looking forward to on any level, but he knew it had to take place.
When they were settled in the chair again, with Andee resting her head against his shoulder and hugging his encircling arm firmly to her breasts, he took a deep breath and began his story.
"My meeting at Buckley turned out to be a waste of my time. It's a good thing it was mainly just an effort by the owner to remind us who was boss, because I couldn't keep my mind on anything but you. I wanted to be in that doctor's office with you so badly. I knew in my mind that my being there wouldn't make a bit of difference in the outcome when he took the patches away, but I couldn't help feeling as though it would. And no matter what, I just wanted to be with you."
She snuggled a little more deeply against him with a happy wriggle.
"Not as much as I wanted you there. Remember how upset I was when you told me you couldn't come?"
He chuckled. "Of course. I remember every single one of your tantrums, missy.� That one was just almost a disaster."
"Yeah. It felt that way to me, too," she said ruefully, recalling the stingy price she had paid.
"Anyway, I stood it as long as I could that afternoon, and then I made some excuse and left the meeting. I wasn't sure how long you would be at the doctor's office, but I decided to come here first and see if you were home. It was on the way, so I pulled in right out front and I was sitting there debating whether to keep waiting or leave and head over to the clinic when you and Leila came home. I knew, as soon as you got out of the car, that you could see. It was one of the best moments of my life, sweetie. I was going to give you time to get inside and sort of unwind with Leila for a minute and then I was going to come in and pray she would take the hint and leave us alone. But, then�"
This was the difficult part. The laughing, jeering words the two young women had exchanged echoed in his heart again and a painful lump grew there, just below the level of her chin.
"But you didn't come in," she said finally. "Why didn't you? Leila was only here a few minutes. I sent her away so we could be alone to celebrate."
"I left, Andee. Right after the two of you walked from her car and unlocked the door and stepped into this apartment, I left. Because I�I couldn't help overhearing your conversation."
She went very still in his lap for a moment and then sat up slowly, her brow creased and her eyes puzzled.
"I remember a little bit about that, and I guess some of the things I said weren't exactly complimentary, but I don't understand why you drove away. I can see where you might have felt like you ought to�well, you know�make me see the error of my ways, maybe even shaved up another bar of soap, but surely the things we said about old Haynesworth weren't so awful they made you walk out of my life."
He stared into her eyes for a minute, his own narrowing.
"What you said about wanting to throw up at the smell�"
"He's like being in the room with a wet dog. Didn't you notice?" she said and wrinkled her nose at the memory.
"And when you said, 'At least I don't need him anymore and I'm going to lock the door on that part of my life'?"
"He gave me the creeps. He always did. But especially after you left that day at the library. I was so afraid he was going to touch me or something. I couldn't wait to get away from him, and I never want to be alone with him ever again."
"It was Haynesworth you two were talking about? Haynesworth who Leila said was old enough to be your grandfather? That obnoxious little academic was the one you said it was so hard to be nice to all the time?"
"Oh, gee. Okay. I already admitted I know it wasn't very nice. Do you have to keep dragging up every nasty thing I said? I'm not proud of it, even if I really did mean it at the time, and I guess I still do. I can't help how he made me feel, though."
"Haynesworth," he whispered in wonder. "I almost lost you over Haynesworth. Oh, gawds, Andee. I have been such an idiot. Such a pathetic idiot, walking around with my feelings all balanced on my shoulder, just waiting to have them knocked off."
The green eyes widened in disbelief and her lips parted into a perfect circle of amazement. "You thought I was talking about you?" she whispered. "You thought I was talking about you!" she screeched, grabbing his face between her hands. "Look me in the eye, Mr. Nicholas Benjamin, and tell me how on earth you thought I could ever say such things about you. Right this minute, tell me, before I throw the biggest fit I've ever thrown. And don't you even think about threatening me with a span� with anything, you awful man, you! You owe me that freebie after all these months of torture."
"I did." He said it quietly and simply.
She collapsed against him, laughing hysterically. "You should write a book about it. Except no one would believe it. Ohhh. Just my luck to fall for a complete imbecile, a total idiot, a perfect fool." And then she grew very still again, realizing she had used words that summoned up images of commitment, had put her heart on the line, face to face, for someone who might feel honor bound to return it to her gently.
"Andee," he said in the voice that had lived in her dreams since the first time she heard it, "I am exactly what you say, but I'm an imbecile, an idiot, a fool with a heart that has never cared about anyone the way I care about you. Can you forgive me, little girl?"
"I'm thinking about it," she said. "And I'm thinking I really don't have any other choice, you know, because I refuse to give you up again. Fool though you are."
He hugged her to him, joy he never expected to experience again flooding his heart and soul. "Only for you, sweet girl. Only and always for you."